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Bulls show Pistons how to play De-Troit basketball
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 31
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The Bulls’ 83-71 win over the Detroit Pistons Friday is one of those NBA games that might be termed ugly for relatively poor shooting by both teams, few fast breaks, five of 23 on threes combined by both teams and limited enthusiasm from the home crowd as the Bulls didn’t trail after the first quarter.
But the game was really a sort of Bulls masterpiece yet again despite the absence of Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton, the latter a late scratch after indications he would return. Hamilton should play Sunday in Oklahoma City, although Rose with his groin injury will miss his 10th straight game and 20th this season against the West leading Thunder.
The Bulls moved to a league best 42-11, though Rose’s likely absence for Sunday takes away the anticipation of the so called Finals preview, which the Thunder won last week over Miami. And while the Pistons are 18-33, Friday’s was the kind of game that explained well why the Bulls could beat Miami without Rose earlier this month and perhaps have an April Fool’s Day surprise for the Thunder.
“Our rebounding was great throughout the game,” said Luol Deng, the Bulls leading scorer with 20 about the team’s 53-37 rebounding edge. “Rebounding has been the key for us. Our defense has been up and down, but rebounding has won a lot of games for us and kept us in a lot of games. We know we’re a better team when we’re 100 percent. But last year we had injuries throughout the season (Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah) and Omer (Asik) was hurt in the playoffs. But we’ve matured a lot and know what to expect.”
And if you play the Bulls, you should know what to expect even without the starting backcourt.
“I think they had 10 offensive boards in the fourth quarter,” noted Pistons coach Lawrence Frank as the Bulls broke from a 75-71 lead with 4:54 left to shut out the Pistons the rest of the way. “They got the 50/50 (loose) balls, the offensive rebounds, and then we couldn’t make shots. That’s why they’re the best team in the league. They play for 24 seconds. I thought our guys competed hard. We couldn’t finish possessions in the fourth quarter. We were playing good defense for 23 seconds against the No. 1 team. Then, they would get the offensive rebound and their lead went from four to eight. Overall, our guys played hard. We just didn’t finish. In the fourth quarter, their defense tightened up and we didn’t make some open shots. They turned it up a notch. That’s what playoff basketball is like. And those second shots for them were backbreakers.”
It’s not fancy stuff for team nicknames, like Lob City or Miami Crisis. There aren’t a lot of exciting numbers to look at in the box score as the starting, substitute guards, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson, again had trouble, shooting a combined five of 17. The Bulls bench players combined to shoot six of 20. But those numbers miss the beauty not only of the ball movement and 22 assists on 32 baskets, but the way those misses are turned into devastating scores and the effort that transcends the natural talent.
“There are many different ways to win the game,” said Taj Gibson, who was the poster guy for the Bulls win despite just eight points and five rebounds. “You have to win the game defensively, loose balls. Every single thing counts. We have to make the best of it (with starters out). Sometimes the ball gets stagnant, but like Thibs (coach Tom Thibodeau) says, you have to have energy, that small plays can become big plays that get you on a run and that’s how our team is built.”
It was evident in several crucial plays in Friday’s fourth quarter that the Bulls opened leading 65-61, though they’d eventually move to 14-5 without Rose and Hamilton having played just 16 of 53 games.
Thibodeau said Hamilton is about ready to return and at the last minute he decided to hold out Hamilton Friday.
“I just thought another day would be good,” said Thibodeau. “I talked to him before the game. I was not quite comfortable with him yet. I told him we’ll hold him another day. He is doing great. We’ve been patient this long. I just want to make sure it is the right time for him. We’ll see where he is after tomorrow. His conditioning is great. It is hard to read because a game is totally different. Right now we have minimal contact in practice. That’s where it becomes difficult to read how is in terms of taking hits. He is going to get hit out there coming off screens. The contact is part of the game. We are playing it safe. That was more my call than his. I want to see him do more stuff tomorrow and we’ll make our decisions after that. He wants to play. I just want to make sure it’s the right time.”
Watson, meanwhile, opened the fourth quarter finding Kyle Korver for a three pointer. It seemed the Bulls would finally take control of a game they seemed destined to win with Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey out in scoring eight straight points to open the quarter and take a 73-61 lead.
After that Korver three, Gibson got fouled going to the basket as Watson passed to Deng who then found Gibson. It seems so simple, moving the ball, finding the open man. But then you watch bad teams like the Pistons and you see so much individual play, isolations, one on one while the Bulls are constantly looking to make the next pass for a better shot, statistics mattering less than perhaps on any team in the league.
“We have guys who can have those 20, 30-point games,” says Gibson. “But it’s about understanding your role. You have to put team first for the ultimate goal of winning one day. And then everyone can share in the (prize). Nobody complains and everyone is buying in and that’s why we are winning.”
The Bulls defense was strong early in the fourth, inevitably holding the Pistons to 10 points in a quarter for the second time in the game.
There were three plays in the fourth that symbolized who this team is even without Rose and Hamilton, and the first was with the Bulls leading 71-61.
Deng shot from 22 feet and Ben Wallace did a heck of a job boxing out Asik and pushing Asik several feet from the rim. But as Wallace backed off Asik, who had four blocks in just 16 minutes, Gibson swooped in along the baseline and grabbed the ball for another possession.
Wallace gave out a huge sigh of obvious disappointment after the work he’d done. It was the Bulls playing through the possession and getting another chance to score.
And they would on another beautiful play that doesn’t make any late night highlight show but reflects why the Bulls lead the NBA.
Watson dribbled back on top waiting for Korver to run screens along the baseline and come up on the left side. The options there are shoot or if the screener’s man steps up, then you pass to your screener, which was Gibson. But the Pistons had a good angle on that pass for denial. So Korver threw across the lane to Asik at the weak side elbow. Wallace had drifted into the lane. But when Asik got the ball, Wallace stepped up. Gibson cut behind and Asik threw a bounce pass to Gibson for the layup.
Just basketball. No play was called. But the Bulls are trained to move the ball, find the open man and get it to the one with the easiest shot.
“You see guys not going hard enough,” says Gibson. “But our team understands. If Omer goes hard to the rim, they have to go to him and that opens something up for someone else. Ronnie goes hard or makes a deflection and that opens for someone to get an easy layup or a two on one. You just continue to work it. Whoever has it going opens things up for someone else.”
The Pistons got a couple of free throws as the Bulls cooled a bit and Detroit got within 73-65 with six and a half minutes left.
Damien Wilkins shot a 12 footer that missed and the ball squirted off to the right side of the basket with Gibson trying to retrieve it. Surrounding him were Wallace, Wilkins and Brandon Knight. Gibson was digging for the ball amongst the three Pistons and falling. Knight went down along with Wilkins. But Gibson got a hand on the ball and directed it to Korver standing in the corner. Korver shot a three that missed, but Deng was swooping in from the weak side and followed it in for a 75-65 lead.
“I know where everybody is,” said Gibson. “I’m more on court with Kyle, so I’m always looking for him, always looking to get him open because he’ll give us a high percentage shot. He’s always there when I look for him or Ronnie and I’m looking for both of them.”
No, these things just don’t happen by accident.
It’s why some say the Bulls play a boring game as they repeat everything they do in every practice or walk through or shootaround, basically going through the same stuff constantly. But it produces habits and trust in one another, the intangibles, the so called little things that win games. It was much the same with Phil Jackson and the triangle offense. It’s not serendipity when Steve Kerr or John Paxson makes a game winning shot or Derek Fisher or Robert Horry. Why do you suppose it happened so much with the same guys and teams? Because they practice and preach effort and hustle and trust and unselfishness, and yes, you need talent. But the things the Bulls do are not for lack of talent. They are skills as well.
Knight, who led the Pistons with 16, then hit a couple of jumpers and though it never felt like it, it did seem possible the Pistons could steal one.
But after Knight drew the Pistons within 75-71 with just under five minutes left, Watson worked himself into a pair of free throws to make it 77-71. Then after a Knight miss, Korver missed. But Noah went up over Jason Maxiell, who had him boxed out, and Tayshaun Prince for the rebound. Noah was brilliant with 19 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. He then turned and found inside Carlos Boozer, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds. Boozer put in a little floater for a 79-71 Bulls lead with 3:52 left that effectively deflated the Pistons. Even when they had position, they failed to get the ball.
Noah would close the Bulls scoring with a tip-in of a Boozer miss and a slam dunk on a dribble handoff as the Bulls trapped the Pistons into turnovers on their last two possessions of the game.
Noah and Deng then went to embrace former teammate Wallace, who is retiring and thus in his final game in Chicago.
He came to Chicago the four time Defensive Player of the Year, but the Bulls defensive game ranked every bit as impressively.
“You’ve go to keep working at it,” said Gibson. “We know from the playoffs every possession counts. As small as it gets every thing is big. We learned that in the Eastern Conference finals, learning how hard you have to play each and every night and how hard you have to play especially being on top.”
It is how you get there and how you stay there, and how the Bulls keep doing it when it seems so unlikely.
* * * * *
There was another issue that came up Friday with an ESPN report Thibodeau is “dismayed” he hasn’t been offered a lucrative contract extension by the Bulls. Thibodeau, of course, branded the report nonsense. Though what else would he say? Who’s going to announce with the team in first place he’s upset when coaches generally condemn players for doing that?
“I don’t know where that’s coming from,” said Thibodeau. “I’m not worried about any of that stuff. I’m under contract and I’m fine with everything here.”
So then reporters went to the locker room to ask players, which is predictable when those things come up.
“He doesn’t talk about that stuff, but we need to get him an extension ASAP,” said Boozer. “We know how great he’s done and what he’s meant for the team and the system he’s putting us in and the way he’s been able to manage this tough season. I thought he’s been a great manager for us. He’s done a great job of pushing us when we need to be pushed, of taking his foot off the gas pedal when we need some rest, and our record reflects that. At the same time, he’s still teaching us the right things. Obviously, that’s the coach we all want to play for.”
“Of course,” Deng said on whether Thibodeau should get an extension. “(But) I’m not giving you guys the answer I’m supposed to. If we don’t bring him back someone will take him. He’s that good. I don’t know the situation. He’s not the type of guy to talk to us about it. We’re not the type of team to talk about it. We all want to see him stay for many years to come. But it’s not up to me.”
So what’s the real story here? It sounds to me like someone picking up some idle speculation or gossip and making it a story. Because it actually makes little sense for either side to do an extension now. Actually, it’s probably more in the Bulls interest than Thibodeau’s, so it would hardly make that much sense he’s upset.
Look, he appears on the verge of being the first coach ever to win back to back Coach of the Year awards. They named the award for Red Auerbach, and he couldn’t do that. And that was when there were nine teams in the league. Plus, Thibodeau has a chance to win an NBA title.
So why would you want to be extended based on last season and these first 50 games when you can bargain with maybe consecutive Coach of the Year awards and an NBA title? It doesn’t make sense.
Is Thibodeau the kind of person who lacks confidence you’d think he wants money locked in and won’t bet on himself? It hardly seems that way given he had two job offers — New Orleans and New Jersey — and turned both down to be only a top contender for the Bulls job with no promise. If he was the kind of guy uncertain or needing security he’d hardly have taken the risk for his first job. And this is a guy who needs money? Who exactly has ever seen him spend anything? He’s either at a game or the Berto Center watching film. He gets a free car, lives in a modest townhouse, has never been married, doesn’t have kids and from what I’ve seen of his wardrobe basically wears Bulls sweatsuits.
He signed a three year contract with a team option for a third year. So he has a year plus left on his deal. It’s rare in the NBA for a coach to get an extension with more than a year on his deal. Phil Jackson never did. There are top coaches all over the NBA without extensions with a year plus left.
And if you were the Bulls why would you want to do it? Thibodeau agreed to a three-year deal. Doesn’t a contract mean anything? I don’t see it happening. But what if the Bulls get swept or simply lose in the first round of the playoffs? Guys can get hurt. They have been the last two years. Why would you want to extend a coach more than a year before his deal is up based on the best parts of the regular season when the playoffs is what matters?
There’s this talk that Thibodeau is upset the Bulls haven’t picked up his option. But that’s ridiculous, also. If anything, he’d want them to reject his option so he could become a free agent after this season. He wouldn’t want the option picked up because it’s for the lower salary on his original deal which was for a coach with no previous experience whom many said could not relate to players. The Bulls believed otherwise and hired him. And Thibodeau waited for the Bulls because he wanted to be in Chicago and coach Derrick Rose. Smart guy.
I can’t say Thibodeau isn’t privately dismayed, though I have rarely read dismay on his face. His emotions generally are more forceful.
If it were me, I’d play it out and become a free agent since the players have generally shown that’s the way to gain your best leverage. And after these two seasons, Thibodeau is going to be considered among the best coaches in the game. So maybe the Bulls move to lock him in. I don’t know, though it’s rare when teams do so before playoff runs. And doesn’t make a lot of sense, really.
Though, yes, I know. Logic can mess up a good headline.